Query from Hal Schiffman

Frank Conlon conlon at U.WASHINGTON.EDU
Fri May 20 15:13:59 UTC 2011

Dear Hal,

On the Mumbai/Bombay front--the consensus has been that Mumbai was derived 
from a local goddess Mumbadevi.  For years the folklore was that Bombay 
was the Portuguese rendering which also coincided with Bom Bahia  or good 
harbor.  The British adopted Bombay from the get-go and Bombay it has 
remained (until changed to Mumbai officially by the influence of Shiv Sena 
in its chauvinist mode--I seem to recall it was November 22, 1995.  My 
recollection (not documented) was that the term Bombay became really 
political in the late 1950s when the central government declined to 
create separate Gujarat and Maharashtra states in the 1956 states 
reorganization.  The issue was the claim of pro-Maharashtra folks that 
Bombay (Mumbai) would be the capital of the state.  The 'opposition' to 
this was perceived to be the 'cosmopolitan' and 'capitalist' interests, 
which initially meant Gujaratis.  The fact that Gujaratis were also an 
important component of the city's life and culture--and had been since the 
17th century--was an inconvenient fact that was easily overlooked. The 
disagreement though was not linguistic as the city had been known as 
Mumbai in Marathi and Gujarati and Konkani always  so far as I know.  The 
railway stations had designations of Bambai in Hindi and this also 
appeared in Urdu.  (You may recall the linguistic state agitations in 
South India involved attacks on post offices and trains--Indian Railways 
was then, and still now, is a central and 'cosmopolitan' entity--very slow 
to change.

On Chennai/Madras, I recall that in 1965-66 the inbound busses coming into 
the city had Madras in English and Chennai in Tamil.  I assumed that the 
official change to Chennai was part and parcel of the change to Tamilnadu 
although I believe it was later.  The naming of Madras was an adaptation, 
I think, of Madrasapatam--one of the hamlets by Fort St. George.  Here I 
am on shaky ground and defer to Madras-wallahs.

Calcutta/Kolkata has its own history; the official change rooted in local 

When Bangalore became Bengaluru the city fathers/mothers threw away what 
might be called a world-recognized 'brand' in the name of Kannadiga 
patriotism. One of my friends there said: "Our politicians cannot fix the 
traffic problem, the water problem, the pollution problem, so they 
renamed the city."

If looking at the colonial naming from the other side, of course, the 
simple answer is that the British had a collective 'tin ear'--how else 
could Livorno become Leghorn?  Or Kwantung become Canton?

de gustibus,


Frank F. Conlon
Professor Emeritus of History, South Asian
      Studies & Comparative Religion
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195-3560      USA
Co-editor, H-ASIA
Managing Director, Bibliography of Asian Studies Online

On Fri, 20 May 2011, Elena Bashir wrote:

> I am posting this query on behalf of Hal Schiffman.  Please send responses
> directly to him:  haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
> -------
> "I've been asked by a colleague in another (non-South Asian) area of the
> world
> what is the history of colonial city naming in India, and whether it is
> possible to
> reconstruct what the "original" names for Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai, and
> Calcutta/Kolkata.
> Two questions in particular I have is whether (1) Bombay was ever called
> Mumbai by
> speakers of other languages of India, other than Marathi, and (2) when
> exactly did the
> call for renaming Bombay as Mumbai began?  I'd be interested to know how
> recently
> this phenomenon is.
> I know that in the case of Madras/Chennai, I never heard of "Chennai" when I
> first went
> to Tamilnadu (then called Madras State) in 1965 and only later was there a
> push to rename the
> city.
> I keep in mind an incident from when I was involved in SEASSI and went to
> Hanoi to
> recruit teachers of Vietnamese.  We noticed that when speaking Vietnamese,
> people
> referred to Saigon as Saigon, but when speaking English, they called it Ho
> Chi Minh City.
> So I'm wondering whether this practice is all current in referring to Indian
> city names.
> Hal Schiffman
> ---------
> Thanks,
> -- 
> E. Bashir, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in Urdu
> Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations
> The University of Chicago, Foster 212
> 1130 E. 59th St.
> Chicago, IL 60637
> Phone:  773-702-8632
> Fax:    773-834-3254

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